Members of the Land Use Regulation Commission had a chance to see and hear some of the positives and negatives of wind energy on Thursday as they toured the Mars Hill wind farm in central Aroostook County.
Because Mars Hill is located outside of Maine’s Unorganized Territory, the wind farm is not within LURC’s jurisdiction. But the commissioners and staff hoped the tour would offer valuable perspective as they review three major wind-energy proposals, including one by the operators of the Mars Hill facility.
Fully operational since March, the Mars Hill wind farm has generated enough pollution-free electricity to power about 15,000 New England homes. But the facility’s 28 turbines, each standing nearly 400 feet tall, have dramatically altered the landscape of this community located between Houlton and Presque Isle.
Some residents have described the sleek white towers and three fiberglass blades as elegant, even attractive, while others see them as blights on the rolling terrain. A group of neighbors have also complained about noise from the turbines.
On Thursday, a 15 mph wind kept 26 of the 28 turbines spinning steadily as the commissioners toured the mountain, including several stops to the bases of turbines. Representatives from UPC Wind Management, owner of the wind farm, said the two other turbines were undergoing routine maintenance.
Commissioners asked UPC staff about wind speed, the amount of vegetative clearing and leveling needed for construction and maintenance, noise levels and other technical issues. They also spent a good bit of time just gazing upward and outward on the spinning turbines.
Commissioner Stephen Wight said he believes UPC should bring school groups or other community organizations up the mountain to help educate them about wind power. Wight said he found the tour useful.
“I think it’s great,” Wight said.
UPC Wind Management and its subsidiary, Evergreen Wind Power, have filed an application with LURC to build a 38-turbine wind farm on Stetson Mountain in Washington County. But both the commissioners and UPC staff steered clear of the Stetson project on Thursday in order to avoid violating LURC rules about discussing an application without all interested parties being present.
In an interview out of earshot of LURC members, UPC’s Matt Kearns said Stetson Mountain is much flatter than Mars Hill, which means the company shouldn’t need to do as much clearing and leveling. The Stetson site also already features a well-maintained logging road along the length of ridgeline where the turbines will go.
“They moved a lot of rock on this project,” Kearns, director of project development for UPC, said while glancing up at a hillside that had been cut away and was being seeded with grass on Thursday. “Our goal is to minimize the environmental impact” at Stetson.
During the latter portion of Thursday’s tour, the commissioners drove to several spots near houses to witness first-hand noise from the turbines. Several people living near the wind farm have said noise from the turbines is disturbing the peace and quiet in their neighborhood, disrupting sleep and causing headaches.
In most cases, only a soft “whooshing” sound could be heard from the street on Thursday, but UPC representatives acknowledged that noise levels may be higher at the houses.
In a study filed with the Department of Environmental Protection last month, UPC said that sound levels during 96 hours in May ranged from 30 to 52 decibels, depending on wind strength and direction as well as the number of turbines that were operating.
The DEP is reviewing the study to determine whether UPC was in compliance with its permit or whether changes are needed.
The other two wind projects that LURC is considering are a 44-turbine facility on Kibby Mountain in Franklin County and an 18-turbine farm on Black Nubble Mountain near Surgarloaf/USA.
By Kevin Miller
13 July 2007
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